Hobbes: A First Note on Faith and Skepticism
The third and fourth sections of Hobbes’ Leviathan treat religion at length, but religion is hardly absent from the rest of the work. Here’s a bit that’s particularly intrigued me:
If Livy say that the gods made once a Cow speak, and we believe it not; wee distrust not God therein, but Livy. So that it is evident, that whatsoever we believe, upon no other reason, then what is drawn from authority of men onely, and their writings; whether they be sent from God or not, is Faith in men onely (Part I, chapter 7).
Deism on one foot, no? If the Bible say that God once made a burning bush speak, and we believe it not, then we distrust not God, but only the authors of the Bible.
Michael Oakeshott seems appropriate here, in his discussion of Hobbes and the Christian worldview:
The human race, and the world it inhabits, so runs the myth, sprang from the creative act of God, and was as perfect as its creator. But, by an original sin, mankind became separated from the source of its happiness and peace. This sin was Pride, the perverse exaltation of the creature, by which man became a god to himself. Thenceforth there lay in man’s nature a hidden principle, the antagonist of his happiness. But while corrupted man pursued his blind desires, an enemy of himself and of his kind, divine grace set a limit to human self-destruction, and promised a restoration of the shattered order, an ultimate salvation. This, briefly, is the myth that gave coherence to the dream. Of the many who contributed to its construction, I suppose it owes most to the imagination of St. Paul and St. Augustine. But it was never quite fixed or finished, always there remained within it certain tensions and potentialities. And it was saved from degeneration into a formula, not merely by the theologians, but by the true custodians of the dream, the poets and the artists of the era. And it received at the very moment when Hobbes was writing Leviathan a fresh, if somewhat eccentric, expression in the two epics of Milton.
At first sight, it might seem that the project of Leviathan is nothing less than the replacement of this imaginative perception of the mystery of human life by another and altogether different myth. Man, Hobbes tells us, is a solitary creature, the inhabitant of a world which contains the materials for the satisfaction of all his desires save one—the desire to continue forever the enjoyment of an endless series of satisfactions. He is solitary in the sense that he belongs to no order and has no obligations. His world, into which he has been carried as if in his sleep, provides all he can wish for, because his desires are centred upon no final achievement, but are confined to obtaining what he has set his mind upon in each moment of his existence. And it is not the transitoriness of his satisfaction that hinders a man’s happiness, but the constant fear that death may supervene and put an end to satisfaction by terminating desire. There is indeed a lesser fear, the fear that his natural powers will be insufficient to assure him of the satisfaction of his next desire. For a man, though he is solitary, is not alone in the world, and must compete with others of his kind for the good things of life. But this lesser fear may be ignored by those who possess a certain nobility of temperament which refuses the indignity of unconditional competition, or it may be removed by coming to some agreement with his fellow inhabitants of the world, an agreement which may establish a kind of superficial peace and orderliness. But the great fear, the fear of death, is permanent and unassuaged. Life is a dream which no knowledge that mankind can acquire is able to dissipate.
Unable to abolish death, Hobbes found he still needed God. Just possibly a very different God from the one that tradition had handed him, and perhaps one open — though Hobbes did denied it explicitly — to indefinite revisions in the future, even to the point where any recognizably Christian elements could perhaps fall away.
In light of Parts III and IV, this can’t be called a thought that Hobbes publicly subscribed to, but it was certainly one he must have considered given the first quoted passage, in which analogy to the Bible is all but impossible to avoid. Why did he see fit to plant this idea in the minds of his readers, at some risk to himself?